Remembering a film that foreshadowed the big labor-capital conflict over dignity that we also see nowadays rocking our politics, society, and economy.
Like many American social movements, the women’s movement in the United States has been a mixed blessing. Tectonic shifts in economics and culture throughout its history greatly influenced the movement’s direction. These external forces sometimes enhanced women’s social conditions, but other times degraded them.
Unfortunately, the process of sifting good from bad is burdened by the ardor of contemporary voices. Debate between feminists and their various adversaries often falls along reductive binaries: either all women’s rights reforms are considered unmitigated progress, or pernicious distortions of maternity and modesty. To properly determine which norms and policies are good for women and which are bad, one must look beyond these disputes to an anthropology built upon sound philosophy.
Erika Bachiochi’s new book, The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision, seeks to do just this. Part history, part legal theory, and part political philosophy, The Rights of Women provides a compelling contribution to feminist dialogue, both applauding the gains and critiquing the missteps made during women’s quest for advancement. Bachiochi begins with Mary Wollstonecraft’s writings, famous for their learned rhetoric and philosophical depth. Wollstonecraft lamented women’s lack of education for its ill effects on their ability to both mother well and engage seriously in creative, intellectual, and political endeavors. Bachiochi sees in Wollstonecraft a rare thinker who appreciates the full range of femininity: powerful minds, full imaginations, searching souls, and tireless parents.
In her 1792 treatise, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft wrote, “Women cannot be confined to merely domestic pursuits, for they will not fulfill family duties, unless their minds take a wider range, and while they are kept in ignorance they become in the same proportion the slaves of pleasure as they are the slaves of man. Nor can they be shut out of great enterprises.” Bachiochi includes this quote in her own book and notes that Wollstonecraft’s shrewd insights stem from her view of human beings as creatures whose rationality is a divine attribute. Both women and men are composites of minds and bodies, capable of activities that reflect and magnify God’s boundless glory. Wollstonecraft lamented the fact that very few women were educated and thus kept in an infantile state, ignorant and dependent. Women, like men, need spiritual and intellectual formation to reach their full human potential.
With this foundational moral vision in mind, Bachiochi proceeds to examine the development of women’s political standing, cultural status, and social conscience throughout American history. During the pre-industrial early republic, the “agrarian home” was the prevalent economic model for white Americans. Women were legally subordinate to their husbands, but their contributions to the family, community, and country were culturally respected. “Republican motherhood,” a concept explored and popularized by Alexis de Tocqueville, viewed women as educators in the civic virtues necessary for the fledgling republic to endure. Women also frequently managed the “sale of home-produced goods and services” or contributed to their family’s prosperity “by their own frugality and inventiveness,” as Bachiochi puts it (84). Thanks to the homebound and localized nature of work and communities during this period, public and private life were not clearly separate but thoroughly imbricated.
Yet, despite the social recognition of women’s contribution to American life, women’s vulnerable legal standing remained unsatisfactory. As the young nation was forming, Abigail Adams famously entreated her husband to “Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.” Still, women were not entirely subjugated. They were “dependent on their husbands,” but “so too were their husbands dependent on them,” Bachiochi observes. Female activity was dignified, even as their political standing was severely wanting.
Industrialization changed everything. Bachiochi writes that the “work of the home,” which men and women had typically shared in the agrarian household, “become more and more economically invisible” as the economy industrialized. Physically demanding jobs brought men out of the home into factories while many women continued to tend the home. Domestic labor retained its moral and spiritual esteem, but spousal roles assumed new forms: “an economically and legally autonomous husband” on the one hand, and “an economically and legally dependent wife” on the other, Bachiochi writes. Non-domestic labor earned wages, acquiring quantifiable value. Large corporations created factories: quasi-public spaces of massive scale that men entered in droves. Meanwhile, wage-less household labor became shrouded in the obscurity of “private life.”
The price tag given to wage labor also gave it fresh cultural esteem, while domestic labor’s economic invisibility gradually translated into social disregard. These oppressive conditions, which drove overworked men to find escape in brothels and socially apocalyptic levels of drinking, in turn, drove women to mobilize on behalf of prohibition and suffrage—to stake an unprecedented claim in public life.
One figure Bachiochi draws upon is 19th-century suffragist and prohibitionist Frances Willard, who elegantly responded to these newfound cultural disruptions. As industrialization intensified a gendered division of labor that in many ways pitted the sexes against each other, Willard offered a conciliar vision for male-female collaboration both domestically and politically. Willard remarked, “If a man and woman are stronger together than either can be separately in the home, by the same law of mind they are stronger together than either can be separately in literature and science, in business and professional life, in church and state.” She further noted that “by the laws of being, men and women must go hand in hand if they would not go astray…”
Willard’s insights are difficult to dispute, but implementing them amidst a system of deeply embedded gender roles proved difficult. Moreover, market-driven valuation crowded out other goods that transcended economic considerations. This key barrier to the Willard vision that Bachiochi identifies is very much alive today: We live in a political order that at every level—legally, culturally, economically—prizes wage-earning and public prestige over all other types of human activity. In other words, today’s social order rewards the maximally autonomous, visible, unencumbered, productive individual associated with maleness over the fiscally unproductive caretaker, associated with femaleness.
The quasi-spiritual status of career artificially collapses the full range of human activity into some form of work: job (productive labor) and home (unproductive labor). Our economy is structured around this dualism: some work earns wages, and some doesn’t—but, professional or domestic, it’s all work. Some activities, however, resists these categories. Journaling, storytelling, painting, friendship, or in other words, leisure has always been with men and women, even as it recedes under the tyranny of labor.
Peculiarly, the reductive job vs. home binary and its eclipse of leisure has led some fringe feminists and traditionalists to converge on one point: motherhood and career are mutually exclusive. Each presents an absolute claim on one’s being that is not reconcilable with the other (low-income families and single mothers, who often don’t have a choice between the two, are frequently overlooked by this view). For some radical traditionalists, any work women take outside of childrearing and homemaking is morally impermissible. For some radical feminists, the irreconcilability of children and career is simply an emergent fact of life.
As economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett put it almost twenty years ago, for most women in demanding corporate leadership positions, “the brutal demands of ambitious careers, the asymmetries of male-female relationships, and the difficulties of bearing children late in life conspire to crowd out the possibility of having children.” In other words, these women, consciously or not, accepted that their careers would determine their fertility. It’s also hard to imagine fathers thriving under the conditions Hewlett describes, though high-achieving men have children at much higher rates than their female peers. Such corporate feminism, now critiqued widely by the left and right, has proven to be detrimental to motherhood, a central feature of femininity for many women, just as fatherhood is for men.
By drawing on Wollstonecraft and many other women’s rights thinkers over time, The Rights of Women provides insights that help resist the totalizing force of workism (professional or domestic) prevalent in today’s feminist discourse. Wollstonecraft doesn’t advocate for the education of women merely so that they can earn wages or be proficient home laborers; rather, education must lead women to love truth and beauty so that they can embrace the fullness of their lives as artists, educators, thinkers, and mothers. Economic realities obviously make wage earning necessary for many men and women, and having a career is actually good when prioritized in proportion to the other social responsibilities that constitute a life well-lived. But leisure—time spent in worship, communing with one’s children or spouse, or any other joyful activity—rather than labor ought to predominate in everyone’s lives.
A Wollstonecraftian education enables one to order her life according to the many obligations of family, work, and leisure. One model of such a life is what Haley Stewart has called “creative motherhood,” a sound leisure-labor compound of activities. Stewart explains, “A parent participating as a co-creator in the birth of new life and an artist offering her God-given talent in the creation of art are merely different manifestations of this holy God-reflecting work of creation.” Ultimately, as Wollstonecraft observed, all women’s and men’s activities contain the potential to commune with God.
Bachiochi’s preferred phrase for a movement that celebrates the fullness of womanhood is “dignitarian feminism,” borrowed from Mary Ann Glendon. Such a feminism affirms “the ‘native’ or basic dignity of every human being whose very nature, qua human being, provides the surest foundation for human rights,” writes Bachiochi. But more fundamentally, it exalts the “honor or nobility found, not in high social status, but in living human life excellently.” A cultural renewal based on human excellence begins by discerning truths evident in embodied femininity. “Other Feminisms,” started by Leah Libresco Sargeant, argues that “the world must remake itself to be hospitable to women, not the other way around.” It must begin “valuing interdependence and vulnerability,” traits on display during the encumbered months of pregnancy and early motherhood.
There are some other interesting and pivotal figures of women’s history whose lives and work present opportunities for further investigation. For instance, Sojourner Truth’s decades-long advocacy for suffrage to include black women underscored the universal dignity of all women. Additionally, any study of how America’s economic realities shape cultural views of labor would benefit from examining slavery and its aftermath, which ruthlessly instrumentalized human beings as labor. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s work, too, is worth exploring for similar reasons.
Still, even without these figures, The Rights of Women is an impressive accomplishment. Bachiochi offers a judicious analysis of women’s history that informs her refreshing portrait of dignitarian feminism. This vision accomplishes something that few anthropologies prevalent today have dared to attempt: it connects humanity’s capacity for imitating God’s Being with life’s mundane activities—work, learning, and even motherhood.